(I and Ear Records)
I'll admit it. I love concept albums. Sure the monstrosities of Yes and their ilk have sullied the form with their laden bales of wank, but I maintain those are concept albums in name alone. Pink Floyd is another perpetrator, though I think an innocent one, since they along with the Who pushed the idea into the marketplace. Years of misguided punk theory disallowed this form, and it was relegated to the fatter edges of metal, but with recent triumphs like Sufjan Stevens' opii geographica and Drive-By Truckers' Southern Rock opera and the Flaming Lips dreamy odes to psychic burnout, people are free to get out their orchestra scores and make it happen.
The latest to tickle my fancy is by Robbie Lee (head of what is currently one of the more interesting labels in operation right now, I and Ear Records) . Sleep, Memory, according to the liner notes is technically "not a quite a concept album, although its structure is mathematically governed." And while it doesn't have the obvious narrative of say XTC's Skylarking, this suite of hand-crafted indie/post rock gems flows like a perfect playlist does, styles sliding up against each other in perfect contrast and connection. Take how the strident folk-rocker "Pileated" with its snoozy psychedelic and ringing chiming chords echoing over the mostly acoustic structure migrates into to the Hazy daydream "Anatomy of Melancholia" and tube-warmed flashback like the first My Morning Jacket album and old Big Star stuff. It works like a rotating gem, where different facets catch the light as the album progresses.
The album is structured as a suite in three parts, the first focusing on the past; the second is rooted in the now. Rambling acoustic guitars on "Saltsong" fit his slightly off cracking voice as its surrounded by slide guitar and a chorus of voices. On "Chartered trips", a horn-drone and marching drum tango collides with a delay-riddled piano to make a compelling stoner-pop masterpiece. Lee's now is a hazy reality on this record; you get a feeling that the narrator is floating over the landscape of humanity rather than pushing through it.
The final act is a barace of dream-like numbers, making the memory-awareness-dream arc I think Lee is getting at, and musically is the most adventurous. "Whirr" is a delight of pop choruses, prepared something percussive bursts and a heightened pulse on the guitar, while "My Head Floatd" is the sound inside the giant Swiss clock at the center of the universe, strums and plinks and washes of wires rustle and glide to some complicated plan. They key to the success of this album is he keeps these moments short so they don't have that "alright already" patina that a lot of free-folk stuff has. The other is his placement, like the humming acoustic number "Hymn " that closes the record. Its like if Iron and Wine was condensed down to it base impulses and augmented with a triangle. It's a tranquil ad somber little number that perfectly caps off this most peculiar yet engaging record.
Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v cook.com